Friday, January 13, 2017

Brilliant Article by Susan Schneider - It may not feel like anything to be an alien

This was one of most well written and interesting articles I read all year. You don't necessarily need to have seen the movie Arrival to appreciate it:

It may not feel like anything to be an alien

December 23, 2016
An alien message in Arrival movie (dredit: Paramount Pictures)
By Susan Schneider
Humans are probably not the greatest intelligences in the universe. Earth is a relatively young planet and the oldest civilizations could be billions of years older than us. But even on Earth, Homo sapiens may not be the most intelligent species for that much longer.
The world Go, chess, and Jeopardy champions are now all AIs. AI is projected to outmode many human professions within the next few decades. And given the rapid pace of its development, AI may soon advance to artificial general intelligence—intelligence that, like human intelligence, can combine insights from different topic areas and display flexibility and common sense. From there it is a short leap to superintelligent AI, which is smarter than humans in every respect, even those that now seem firmly in the human domain, such as scientific reasoning and social skills. Each of us alive today may be one of the last rungs on the evolutionary ladder that leads from the first living cell to synthetic intelligence.

What we are only beginning to realize is that these two forms of superhuman intelligence—alien and artificial—may not be so distinct. The technological developments we are witnessing today may have all happened before, elsewhere in the universe. The transition from biological to synthetic intelligence may be a general pattern, instantiated over and over, throughout the cosmos. The universe’s greatest intelligences may be postbiological, having grown out of civilizations that were once biological. (This is a view I share with Paul Davies, Steven Dick, Martin Rees, and Seth Shostak, among others.) To judge from the human experience—the only example we have—the transition from biological to postbiological may take only a few hundred years.

I prefer the term “postbiological” to “artificial” because the contrast between biological and synthetic is not very sharp. Consider a biological mind that achieves superintelligence through purely biological enhancements, such as nanotechnologically enhanced neural minicolumns. This creature would be postbiological, although perhaps many wouldn’t call it an “AI.” Or consider a computronium that is built out of purely biological materials, like the Cylon Raider in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series.

The key point is that there is no reason to expect humans to be the highest form of intelligence there is. Our brains evolved for specific environments and are greatly constrained by chemistry and historical contingencies. But technology has opened up a vast design space, offering new materials and modes of operation, as well as new ways to explore that space at a rate much faster than traditional biological evolution. And I think we already see reasons why synthetic intelligence will outperform us.

An extraterrestrial AI could have goals that conflict with those of biological life
Silicon microchips already seem to be a better medium for information processing than groups of neurons. Neurons reach a peak speed of about 200 hertz, compared to gigahertz for the transistors in current microprocessors. Although the human brain is still far more intelligent than a computer, machines have almost unlimited room for improvement. It may not be long before they can be engineered to match or even exceed the intelligence of the human brain through reverse-engineering the brain and improving upon its algorithms, or through some combination of reverse engineering and judicious algorithms that aren’t based on the workings of the human brain.

In addition, an AI can be downloaded to multiple locations at once, is easily backed up and modified, and can survive under conditions that biological life has trouble with, including interstellar travel. Our measly brains are limited by cranial volume and metabolism; superintelligent AI, in stark contrast, could extend its reach across the Internet and even set up a Galaxy-wide computronium, utilizing all the matter within our galaxy to maximize computations. There is simply no contest. Superintelligent AI would be far more durable than us.

Suppose I am right. Suppose that intelligent life out there is postbiological. What should we make of this? Here, current debates over AI on Earth are telling. Two of the main points of contention—the so-called control problem and the nature of subjective experience—affect our understanding of what other alien civilizations may be like, and what they may do to us when we finally meet.

Ray Kurzweil takes an optimistic view of the postbiological phase of evolution, suggesting that humanity will merge with machines, reaching a magnificent technotopia. But Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and others have expressed the concern that humans could lose control of superintelligent AI, as it can rewrite its own programming and outthink any control measures that we build in. This has been called the “control problem”—the problem of how we can control an AI that is both inscrutable and vastly intellectually superior to us.
“I’m sorry, Dave” — HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you think intelligent machines are dangerous, imagine what intelligent extraterrestrial machines could do. (credit: YouTube/Warner Bros.)

Superintelligent AI could be developed during a technological singularity, an abrupt transition when ever-more-rapid technological advances—especially an intelligence explosion—slip beyond our ability to predict or understand. But even if such an intelligence arises in less dramatic fashion, there may be no way for us to predict or control its goals. Even if we could decide on what moral principles to build into our machines, moral programming is difficult to specify in a foolproof way, and such programming could be rewritten by a superintelligence in any case. A clever machine could bypass safeguards, such as kill switches, and could potentially pose an existential threat to biological life. Millions of dollars are pouring into organizations devoted to AI safety. Some of the finest minds in computer science are working on this problem. They will hopefully create safe systems, but many worry that the control problem is insurmountable.

In light of this, contact with an alien intelligence may be even more dangerous than we think. Biological aliens might well be hostile, but an extraterrestrial AI could pose an even greater risk. It may have goals that conflict with those of biological life, have at its disposal vastly superior intellectual abilities, and be far more durable than biological life.

That argues for caution with so-called Active SETI, in which we do not just passively listen for signals from other civilizations, but deliberately advertise our presence. In the most famous example, in 1974 Frank Drake and Carl Sagan used the giant dish-telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to send a message to a star cluster. Advocates of Active SETI hold that, instead of just passively listening for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, we should be using our most powerful radio transmitters, such as Arecibo, to send messages in the direction of the stars that are nearest to Earth.

Why would nonconscious machines have the same value we place on biological intelligence?
Such a program strikes me as reckless when one considers the control problem. Although a truly advanced civilization would likely have no interest in us, even one hostile civilization among millions could be catastrophic. Until we have reached the point at which we can be confident that superintelligent AI does not pose a threat to us, we should not call attention to ourselves. Advocates of Active SETI point out that our radar and radio signals are already detectable, but these signals are fairly weak and quickly blend with natural galactic noise. We would be playing with fire if we transmitted stronger signals that were intended to be heard.

The safest mindset is intellectual humility. Indeed, barring blaringly obvious scenarios in which alien ships hover over Earth, as in the recent film ArrivalI wonder if we could even recognize the technological markers of a truly advanced superintelligence. Some scientists project that superintelligent AIs could feed off black holes or create Dyson Spheres, megastructures that harnesses the energy of entire stars. But these are just speculations from the vantage point of our current technology; it’s simply the height of hubris to claim that we can foresee the computational abilities and energy needs of a civilization millions or even billions of years ahead of our own.

Some of the first superintelligent AIs could have cognitive systems that are roughly modeled after biological brains—the way, for instance, that deep learning systems are roughly modeled on the brain’s neural networks. Their computational structure might be comprehensible to us, at least in rough outlines. They may even retain goals that biological beings have, such as reproduction and survival.
But superintelligent AIs, being self-improving, could quickly morph into an unrecognizable form. Perhaps some will opt to retain cognitive features that are similar to those of the species they were originally modeled after, placing a design ceiling on their own cognitive architecture. Who knows? But without a ceiling, an alien superintelligence could quickly outpace our ability to make sense of its actions, or even look for it. Perhaps it would even blend in with natural features of the universe; perhaps it is in dark matter itself, as Caleb Scharf recently speculated.
The Arecibo message was broadcast into space a single time, for 3 minutes, in November 1974 (credit: SETI Institute)

An advocate of Active SETI will point out that this is precisely why we should send signals into space—let them find us, and let them design means of contact they judge to be tangible to an intellectually inferior species like us. While I agree this is a reason to consider Active SETI, the possibility of encountering a dangerous superintelligence outweighs it. For all we know, malicious superintelligences could infect planetary AI systems with viruses, and wise civilizations build cloaking devices. We humans may need to reach our own singularity before embarking upon Active SETI. Our own superintelligent AIs will be able to inform us of the prospects for galactic AI safety and how we would go about recognizing signs of superintelligence elsewhere in the universe. It takes one to know one.

It is natural to wonder whether all this means that humans should avoid developing sophisticated AI for space exploration; after all, recall the iconic HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Considering a future ban on AI in space would be premature, I believe. By the time humanity is able to investigate the universe with its own AIs, we humans will likely have reached a tipping point. We will have either already lost control of AI—in which case space projects initiated by humans will not even happen—or achieved a firmer grip on AI safety. Time will tell.

Raw intelligence is not the only issue to worry about. Normally, we expect that if we encountered advanced alien intelligence, we would likely encounter creatures with very different biologies, but they would still have minds like ours in an important sense—there would be something it is like, from the inside, to be them. Consider that every moment of your waking life, and whenever you are dreaming, it feels like something to be you. When you see the warm hues of a sunrise, or smell the aroma of freshly baked bread, you are having conscious experience. Likewise, there is also something that it is like to be an alien—or so we commonly assume. That assumption needs to be questioned though. Would superintelligent AIs even have conscious experience and, if they did, could we tell? And how would their inner lives, or lack thereof, impact us?

The question of whether AIs have an inner life is key to how we value their existence. Consciousness is the philosophical cornerstone of our moral systems, being key to our judgment of whether someone or something is a self or person rather than a mere automaton. And conversely, whether they are conscious may also be key to how they value us. The value an AI places on us may well hinge on whether it has an inner life; using its own subjective experience as a springboard, it could recognize in us the capacity for conscious experience. After all, to the extent we value the lives of other species, we value them because we feel an affinity of consciousness—thus most of us recoil from killing a chimp, but not from munching on an apple.

But how can beings with vast intellectual differences and that are made of different substrates recognize consciousness in each other? Philosophers on Earth have pondered whether consciousness is limited to biological phenomena. Superintelligent AI, should it ever wax philosophical, could similarly pose a “problem of biological consciousness” about us, asking whether we have the right stuff for experience.

Who knows what intellectual path a superintelligence would take to tell whether we are conscious. But for our part, how can we humans tell whether an AI is conscious? Unfortunately, this will be difficult. Right now, you can tell you are having experience, as it feels like something to be you. You are your own paradigm case of conscious experience. And you believe that other people and certain nonhuman animals are likely conscious, for they are neurophysiologically similar to you. But how are you supposed to tell whether something made of a different substrate can have experience?
Westworld (credit: HBO)
Consider, for instance, a silicon-based superintelligence. Although both silicon microchips and neural minicolumns process information, for all we now know they could differ molecularly in ways that impact consciousness. After all, we suspect that carbon is chemically more suitable to complex life than silicon is. If the chemical differences between silicon and carbon impact something as important as life itself, we should not rule out the possibility that the chemical differences also impact other key functions, such as whether silicon gives rise to consciousness.

The conditions required for consciousness are actively debated by AI researchers, neuroscientists, and philosophers of mind. Resolving them might require an empirical approach that is informed by philosophy—a means of determining, on a case-by-case basis, whether an information-processing system supports consciousness, and under what conditions.

Here’s a suggestion, a way we can at least enhance our understanding of whether silicon supports consciousness. Silicon-based brain chips are already under development as a treatment for various memory-related conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress disorder. If, at some point, chips are used in areas of the brain responsible for conscious functions, such as attention and working memory, we could begin to understand whether silicon is a substrate for consciousness. We might find that replacing a brain region with a chip causes a loss of certain experience, like the episodes that Oliver Sacks wrote about. Chip engineers could then try a different, non-neural, substrate, but they may eventually find that the only “chip” that works is one that is engineered from biological neurons. This procedure would serve as a means of determining whether artificial systems can be conscious, at least when they are placed in a larger system that we already believe is conscious.

Even if silicon can give rise to consciousness, it might do so only in very specific circumstances; the properties that give rise to sophisticated information processing (and which AI developers care about) may not be the same properties that yield consciousness. Consciousness may require consciousness engineering—a deliberate engineering effort to put consciousness in machines.

Here’s my worry. Who, on Earth or on distant planets, would aim to engineer consciousness into AI systems themselves? Indeed, when I think of existing AI programs on Earth, I can see certain reasons why AI engineers might actively avoid creating conscious machines.
Robots are currently being designed to take care of the elderly in Japan, clean up nuclear reactors, and fight our wars. Naturally, the question has arisen: Is it ethical to use robots for such tasks if they turn out to be conscious? How would that differ from breeding humans for these tasks? If I were an AI director at Google or Facebook, thinking of future projects, I wouldn’t want the ethical muddle of inadvertently designing a sentient system. Developing a system that turns out to be sentient could lead to accusations of robot slavery and other public-relations nightmares, and it could even lead to a ban on the use of AI technology in the very areas the AI was designed to be used in. A natural response to this is to seek architectures and substrates in which robots are not conscious.

Further, it may be more efficient for a self-improving superintelligence to eliminate consciousness. Think about how consciousness works in the human case. Only a small percentage of human mental processing is accessible to the conscious mind. Consciousness is correlated with novel learning tasks that require attention and focus. A superintelligence would possess expert-level knowledge in every domain, with rapid-fire computations ranging over vast databases that could include the entire Internet and ultimately encompass an entire galaxy. What would be novel to it? What would require slow, deliberative focus? Wouldn’t it have mastered everything already? Like an experienced driver on a familiar road, it could rely on nonconscious processing. The simple consideration of efficiency suggests, depressingly, that the most intelligent systems will not be conscious. On cosmological scales, consciousness may be a blip, a momentary flowering of experience before the universe reverts to mindlessness.

If people suspect that AI isn’t conscious, they will likely view the suggestion that intelligence tends to become postbiological with dismay. And it heightens our existential worries. Why would nonconscious machines have the same value we place on biological intelligence, which is conscious?

Soon, humans will no longer be the measure of intelligence on Earth. And perhaps already, elsewhere in the cosmos, superintelligent AI, not biological life, has reached the highest intellectual plateaus. But perhaps biological life is distinctive in another significant respect—conscious experience. For all we know, sentient AI will require a deliberate engineering effort by a benevolent species, seeking to create machines that feel. Perhaps a benevolent species will see fit to create their own AI mindchildren. Or perhaps future humans will engage in some consciousness engineering, and send sentience to the stars.

SUSAN SCHNEIDER is an associate professor of philosophy and cognitive science at the University of Connecticut and an affiliated faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center of Theological Inquiry, YHouse, and the Ethics and Technology Group at Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center of Bioethics. She has written several books, including Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence. For more information, visit

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Anyone read the Clark report on eHealth Ontario?

Clark report recognizes eHealth Ontario – and ehealth in Ontario

The recently conducted Ed Clark review concludes that eHealth Ontario and its partners have created clear and compelling value for the health care system and recognizes the progress that’s been made.
In his report, Mr. Clark makes a number of recommendations to maximize the value of current assets, derive more value for the system and patients alike, and improve the delivery and oversight of the digitization of health information in the province.
While some of these recommendations apply solely to eHealth Ontario delivering its future mandate, many are aimed at the broader health care sector that is involved in digitizing health care across the province.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

eHealth Medical Fiction - "Cell" by Robin Cook

I just finished a page turner by Robin Cook called "Cell". I knew from the beginning that it was an eHealth type of medical fiction. It features a smartphone app called iDoc that promises almost to take over the role of the personal physician. I suspected while reading the influence by Eric Topol, who must be one of the greatest champions for spearheading the medical smartphone revolution.

I was not too surprised to find that Robin Cook does acknowledge Topol at the end of the book. For a while I was concurrently reading Topols' "The Patient Will See You Now" and "Cell".  Robin Cook wrote "Cell" in 2014 and he credited Topols' "The Creative Destruction of Medicine".  Reading the medical fiction is  just a diversion. If you really want to learn about how the smartphone will revolutionize medicine - read Topol.

Medicare should be a major department for all Americans, just like Education and Defense. The author appears to argue like this in the book as he alludes often to the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare. The villain is a Health Insurance Company bent on making billions with the miracle app. The iDoc app is wonderful as the algorithms on the smartphone help to prevent illness and conditions. Health advice is immediate and always accessible.

Unfortunately, the app takes a turn for the worse and the "heuristics" start killing off patients in the alpha testing.  That involves what I think is the only science fiction element in the story - a nano-chip implanted in diabetes patients that is remote controlled by wireless radio signals releasing doses of insulin.  In real life the FDA has approved an "artificial pancreas" of sorts - a network of devices - that automagically monitors and controls blood sugar levels - it just doesn't work on the nano scale.

Just saw over at the Geek Doctor blogspot there is a guest blog by Seth Berkowitz, MD about  Apple’s CareKit and ResearchKit frameworks and the HealthKit API being used at BIDMC. Engaging patients in their health like that is a step towards a kind of iDoc.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Musing on the Interaxon Muse Meditation Headband

"For this calibration, find a comfortable position and take a deep breath".

The computer brain interface world is getting interesting. The first time I heard about these types of MUSE brainwave sensing devices was an experiment where they trained people to move a cursor on a computer screen using their brain waves and a EEG headband. Maybe it was the MUSE - not sure. The next thing they did was have those same people change the colour of the floodlights on Niagara Falls and the CN Tower using their entrained brainwaves.

 I have seen more than several research projects now that have involved the Interaxon Muse headband - a device that self-directs users into a calm state of meditation by reading their brainwaves through an EEG headband and translating the data into a meditation tracking app. It may be just the start before EEG caps and gels and wire attachments are a thing of the past.

The McMaster university library recently started loaning out this device so instead of buying one (about $400) I have borrowed one for a week. Mind you, I have 35 years of meditation experience in a variety of schools and techniques and am not expecting a device like this to teach me anything. But after taking an 8 week online mindfulness course - just videos and online instructions - I believe that meditation can be taught through technology.

After downloading the app and fumbling around trying to fit it on my head - should have looked at the visuals in the instructions -  I learned how to sync my brainwaves using the app on the ipad. I tried a 3 minute meditation in the living room while the TV was on, a laptop was playing a video in the background and I was talking to my wife who was doing her yoga exercises. My brainwaves during those 3 minutes were in the noisy/active category. I had scored no calm points and I heard zero "birds". Hearing birds means that your brainwaves are staying in a calm meditative space. Seeing a graph of my brainwaves is actually very interesting but scoring points for meditating well and being asked if I want to share that on Facebook or Twitter is another thing. Tempting though to show all my friends on social media what a noisy mess my brainwaves are - No!

I was sort of impressed with the app interface and the instructions by the MUSE meditation guide. The next time I tried it I sat in my meditation room on my meditation cushion and zabuton. I extended the time to 7 minutes. I chose the default beach imagery with the sound of lapping waves and wind. If you hear the wind, it is actually the sound of your own brainwaves making noise. You are not watching your breath. I sat in the half lotus posture with my hands in my lap, a classic meditation posture I have practiced for years. The resulting graph of my brainwaves after 7 minutes indicated that I had no active or noisy points - 98% calm state of mind and about 100 birds. I could actually hear the birds in the background if I turned up the volume.  Here is a picture of my stats. In my last 20 minute sessions the batteries in the MUSE drained and I had to resume twice so the stats are all thrown off.

It is getting interesting but I spent the rest of the day thinking that I have been under surveillance with my brainwaves subjected to mechanical replication and analysis. This experience was not at all a natural process, in spite of the kind and soft voice of the human guide behind the algorithms on the app. My gurus had years and years of training and practice in meditation before they were allowed to teach.  I didn't let that get to me because I am fascinated with the technology.

The next sitting session I tried 20 minutes - about the amount of my usual meditation time these days. The result was 100% in the calm space, over 200 birds, and no "recoveries" or straying outside the calm zone with distracted thought or lapse of attention to mindfulness of breathing. And that was just a "normal" session for me.

I am really impressed with this device but I am sure that I don't need it having learned the art and science of meditation the traditional way - sitting at the feet of the masters, going on retreats, and practicing daily. My real question and concern is how will this device work with digital natives and those new to meditation?

We live in a world of secular ethics and this device does not come attached to any religious ideology. We all know by now that a mindfulness of breathing practice cuts across the sectarian world. Creating calm brain waves just requires the right guidance and intervention. Is total reliance on the MUSE soulless and alienating?  Not necessarily, though I would probably recommend an online mindfulness of meditation course called Palouse Mindfulness rather than the MUSE for a true beginner - especially ones who are remote from teachers and centres and can't afford the cost. One of the practices in one of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism is Lam Rim. Lam Rim literally means "gradual path". The gradual path to meditative calm is the best way.

Here is one tip from my Zen teacher on meditation that will help anyone understand the nature of mind and meditation. Sitting across from me at a table the teacher gave me a piece of paper and a pencil. He asked me to draw a small line to count each time I had a thought. It became obvious to me that the page would quickly fill up with counts of scattered thoughts. After sitting in meditation practice, the number of counts becomes noticeably fewer. Where did all those thoughts go? It is just a state of being. As American wise man Joe Miller once said "You can get more stinkin’ from thinkin’ than you can from drinkin,’ but to feel is for real!  And I Mean Really Feel!”

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Korean Medical TV Dramas II

1. Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim, 2016낭만닥터 김사부

Surprising discovery today! Another medical drama starts next week! We will tune into it for sure. What a banner year for Korean medical dramas! This one promises to be less romantic and more realistic.  Yes! What follows is more info from dramabeans at this link: 낭만닥터 김사부

"Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim is about a brilliant medical genius who is also a bit of an eccentric crackpot. He is the first and only triple-board certified surgeon in Korea, meaning that he is an expert in three different specialties, when most doctors spend their whole lives devoted to mastering one. Originally, he was revered as the rising star of the nation’s top hospital, but due to a traumatic incident, he makes the decision to step down and work at a small rural clinic to help treat the ailments of the elderly and underprivileged. Despite not acting in a contemporary drama for 21 years, Han Seok-kyu says in a Naver V App interview that he believes he can imbue this character with the warmth and well-meaning heart of a doctor. He will act as a mentor to two younger doctors played by Yoo Yeon-seok and Seo Hyun-jin when they are assigned to come to his hospital.

Yoo Yeon-seok plays an ambitious go-getter with a cold but charismatic personality. His counterpart, Seo Hyun-jin, on the other hand, plays a more timid character who initially started her medical career because people would compliment her for working toward it. Together under Teacher Kim, they learn the true meaning of being a doctor and the joys of bringing healing to patients.

In the recently released first teaser, Han Seok-kyu walks down a darkened corridor while his voiceover says: “When you come to my neck of the woods, there’s only one rule. We must save our patients no matter what happens. Everything else can go to hell, but we must save them.” An angry-sounding Yoo Yeon-seok yells back, “Who are you, a washed up gangster? What’s your true identity, a gambling addict or an emergency department specialist?” Then we see a couple shots of the hospital, a car crash, and Han Seok-kyu showing off his mastery with a scalpel, giving it a little spin."

2. Doctors, 2016 (Hangul닥터스)

The actress Park, Shin-Hye (박신혜) featured in this one. She was very popular in Heirs, a Dramafever sponsored teen angst romance that began surprising filmed in California.  As expected the drama mostly focused on a romance but the medical context was very compelling. The doctors were neurosurgeons and almost everyone and his brother in this drama ended up with a tumour requiring brain surgery. The brain surgery scenes were very realistic I suppose, but I have never seen one in person.

Under the bright lights in the surgery we see patients live and die (most live) after various pieces of their grey matter are extracted in various states of urgency. Brain trepanation or whatever they do to open the skull is part of the action of course, but these smart doctors make it all look like a breeze.

The character Park, Shin-Hye played was a real rebellious street kid but had an IQ over 156. She was better at martial arts than homework until a series of events propelled her into a career objective to become a doctor. How the street smart street fighter became a doctor was all due to the powerful motivation of revenge - a very common theme in Korean dramas. Not sure why one version of the title for the series was Doctor Crush, but most Korean TV dramas have more than one translated English title, making searches on them for more information sometimes difficult.

3. Beautiful Mind, 2016 (뷰티풀 마인드)

By Source, Fair use,
On at the same time as Doctors, was it just a coincidence that this medical drama was also about neurosurgeons? Did the two different Korean TV networks intentionally set out to make a competition for the ratings with the same theme?  If so, this drama did not have the breezy romance and good nature of Doctors. It also did not have the ratings and ended 2 episodes earlier than it was supposed to. It had more of a biting edge to it, mostly in the form of the lead actor who played a neurosurgeon who had no common sense of human emotions - a kind of autism as a result of the brain surgery error by his adoptive father.

No more spoilers, but at any rate, one constantly asks - how can a doctor have no interpersonal skills (sort of like Dr. House but more extreme) because really he doesn't know how to relate to human emotions? Don't worry - it all works out - and true love once again saves the day. Of course there is a romance rolled into this drama as well.  Explaining the lower ratings to Doctors is kind of difficult to fathom in my books.

The lead actor Jang Hyuk is excellent, especially playing this sensitive and complex character. He was amazing as the YanBan (scholar class) turned slave hunter in Chuno (추노) , a highly rated TV drama series. The character he plays reminds me of a rare psychological condition where a person can't empathize at all with others. There are other rare conditions where persons don't even feel physical pain - many daily life dilemmas there. But acting the role of a doctor (whom one might expect to be the epitome of being able to be empathic) who does not feel empathy or any human emotions, is quite a challenging one. I still don't know why they gave it the title "Beautiful Mind", which is the same title of another movie staring Russel  Crowe who played the Nobel winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr.

We see a lot of scenes of X-rays up on viewing screens more than the bright lights of the surgery ward. We are also exposed to an endless stream of ethical dilemmas, including ones involving unethical clinical trials and fudging of the data. Couldn't ask for anything more educational than that. One yearns episode to episode to find out how or if this physician will discover his inner human heart and not be forever the automaton - or be found out by his colleagues for having this rare condition as it is secret.  There is a good vs. evil sub-plot to all of this which has a very good doctor (Lee Jae-Ryong) from the series General Hospital 2 playing the role this time as the very evil doctor (if you want to define evil as not just greed but wanting to save human lives at the expense of expendable human participants in drug research).

A sub-plot in the drama involves a lawyer who becomes a physician in order to become a better lawyer who prosecutes physicians for medical malpractice - motivated of course because of the tragic death of her father due to medical negligence. Can she really balance these two different worlds at one time or can she decide that she sincerely wants to be a physician? Her fellow residents think she is pursuing a dangerous conflict of interest - and in fact she is.

4. Descendants of the Sun, (태양의 후예)2016

Nothing like a catchy OST to drive the popularity and run parallel to the heart tugging emotions that make up a series. This drama had very high ratings in Korea but it was a runaway smash hit in China with half the nations population tuning or something, and it came with government warnings that Korean dramas are sometimes not good for your health or social relationships. Taken with a grain of salt of course - and this was mostly a medical drama. The two Songs Song Joong-ki, Song Hye-kyo, are absolutely brilliant, and so are their buddies, who also have the other  great romance - Jin Goo, and Kim Ji-won,. Much talk now about a continuing series.

Well, the lead actress is an ER doctor and the main actor is a high ranking top secret soldier, but the plot is mostly based around medical dramas and  humanitarian situations, primarily in a war torn country where the Korean military has volunteered for a peace keeping mission.  The drama was partially filmed in Greece, and many characters are non-Koreans in the fictionalized country - very interesting scenes for a Korean TV drama, which are by large mono-cultural.  That has been changing because we have seen dramas where trans people and people with disabilities are leading characters (if not cast members).

The conflict or play off between Joo Won saving lives as a physician and taken them (in order to save lives) as a soldier, are as constant as the burgeoning and yet impossible romance that builds between the two leading characters. The medical scenes compliment the military actions - emergency response to earthquakes, terrorism, and ebola-like disease outbreaks. It is a humanitarian mission full of human compassion. You can also just sit back and enjoy the excellent OST and the humorous and sad romance between the other leading characters.

5. Yong-Pal,(용팔이) 2015

As I understand it the title of this drama is very similar or a play on words to the Korean expression for "quack doctor" -돌팔이 physician and 하다 or excellent or amazing.  The doctor in question is not yet a doctor - still a resident - but he is an exceptionally gifted surgeon and becomes a doctor to some shady underworld characters who always getting wounded in gang wars. He is making money to stitch them up in a black mailed kind of way but he needs it to pay for his sisters kidney dialysis and transplant. This was a recurrent theme in the 2016 medical TV dramas (Doctors & Beautiful Mind) - paying for medical bills by those who can't afford it -  while the corporate executives are trying to make a profit in healthcare. No doubt this is also the current reality of healthcare in Korea.

Another facet of the current reality of healthcare in Korea are the exceptionally gifted plastic surgeons. Thousands of medical tourists go to Korea for plastic surgery, some carrying the photos of Korean actresses (or actors) who they want to look like - and apparently that is what they come out looking like. There is a Korean word for these kinds of amazing physicians. So far I haven't seen a medical drama about plastic surgeons. God spare me please.

The romance in this drama involves Yong-pal and his ultra-rich patient, the daughter heiress of an incredible fortune who is being kept in a drug induced coma in a high tech life suspension facility in a secret room of the top floor of the hospital - also owned by the same rich family. Of course, the criminal intrigue for keeping her in a coma is the plot of her older brother who thinks he should inherit the corporation. She is really not sick - she is intentionally being kept in the coma. Apparently she can still hear what is going on around her.  Intriguingly, the scapel in the poster for the series is the "mes" 메스, a Korean loan word that becomes easily learned by watching these medical dramas. It will feature prominently in the Jejunwon drama which depicts the transformation of Korean medicine from the traditional to the modern during the Japanese occupation - the first surgeries to use the scapel in other words.

The lead actor in this drama, Joo Won was excellent in Bridal Mask (각시탈),  where he played a Korean who rose high in the ranks of the Japanese Police during the Japanese colonial period only to later betray the Japanese and become 각시탈, a Korean Robin Hood freedom fighter who wore a Korean bridal mask while fighting against the Japanese.

6. Doctor Stranger, (닥터 이방인) 2014

It is always good to see Korean dramas that involve many scenes taking place in North Korea because it suggests there is still hope for this nation of one people, one language and one culture to get together at long last.  Of course, the North Koreans are adversaries throughout this tense drama, which doesn't have so much the light and breezy romantic qualities of Doctors for example. Not much is memorable for me in this drama except for the strange intrigue of Korean politics between North and South. Of course, the doctor trained in North Korea (where human experimentation reigns supreme without ethics boards) is far superior to the doctors in the South. But how can he even practice in the South? Well, originally he came from South Korea before he and his Dad were kidnapped into the North intentionally but political baddies in the South - it is all so confusing, so don't ask me, better watch it yourself. As I recall there is a lot of tense drama to this, a quick moving plot, and the romance is not syrupy and sickly sweet. Did I ever tell you that there is nothing wrong with a 16 episode Korean TV drama. Anything under that is not going to be as good.

7. Good Doctor굿 닥터 2013

This drama was going to be painful to watch at first because the lead doctor is an "autistic savant" who has incredible memory and genius but can't tie shoes and fumbles counting pocket change. Would you put a scalpel in that man's hands? Anyway, the lead actor is the very talented Joo Won , who is quite adept are playing these sensitive roles - and playing physicians again. Apparently though, being vulnerable and simple this way will get you the girl. His naivete and innocence are appropriate for his role a pediatric surgeon because he relates so well to kids on that level.

All Korean medical dramas have competition between various departments and lots of jealous intrigue between the competing physicians, their superiors and their understudies. Most have competitions and intrigues for the top dog position in the hospital pitting a white knight against a black knight. Some really useful Korean to learn which will give you an insight into the nature of Korean social relationships is the senior - junior demarcation.  A senior to you in either age, year in school, or rank in employment is your "sunbae" (선배) or "junior" (). The subtitle translations on Dramafever or Viki won't always get this. They will translate with the name of the person being addressed when in reality the person is being called "Sunbae" instead of their name. Koreans all live in one vast extended family and the way they address each other according to age and rank is fascinating. It is also very important for how they speak to each other using formal or informal grammar, tone, and manners.

8. Hur Jun: The Original Story, 구암 허준 2013

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

I really admired this remake of the Heo Jun series from 1999. (There was actually an early version from the 1980s which I never saw). The legendary Joseon dynasty doctor reminds me of Shakespeare. They both lived at almost the same time - end of the 16th century. Not much is known about the personal lives of either. Both left works of massive masterpieces in their field which influenced the lives of millions for all posterity.  This 2013 version is very faithful to the 1999 version which was so masterful to begin with. That to me was the most surprising. After the radical departure from the 1999 version at the very beginning, for a while later I thought they were doing a scene by scene remake but just with different characters.  It was infinitely more subtle than that. Could it even be improved? That they even tried to do better is so laudable and many times I think they did succeed. Well, I thought it was almost better than the 1999 version did but there is a difference of opinion in the Korean family here that the 1999 version is better. It reminds of Harvey Cushing's biography of the great Canadian physician William Osler, which some writers have called a "hagiography" or the biography of a Saint. Hur Jun is a Korean saint - no doubt about it in my mind - the Dongui Bogam forever. Never watched a Korean drama with 50 or more episodes? 

9. Sign, 싸인 2011

Sign is not to be confused with the spellbinding detective mystery from 2016 called Signal.  Sign is a lesser drama and that might have to do with the fact that it is about the life of forensic doctors. One would think with the popularity of CIS and American dramas like that that the Koreans could pull off a good one too. Sign is very good, in spite of the weak plot lines which are almost unbearable at times. However, the attempt to show forensic science by referencing the very real NFS - the National Forensic Service of Korea - succeeded, I think, in making the doings and goings on of this profession better known to the public. It is always the general public who are are always the dupes in Korean dramas, from Joseon dynasty dramas all the way to the present day. There are always the rich and powerful playing the puppet strings of everyone else.

10. Jejunwon제중원, 2010

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,
Having taught English in Korea for almost four years, as a teacher in the public education system I was indoctrinated to the cultural history of Korea and the atrocities inflicted on the Korean people during the Japanese colonial period.  Make no mistake - that time in the history of Korea - even before the Korean war - was no joke. This drama is poignant in the context for those times, beginning when the last King of the Joeson dynasty ruled, to the Japanese colonial takeover. Parallel to those historic events we have the unfolding of the medical drama where the Korean people transition from practicing traditional or Chinese medicine to the techniques of modern surgery.  A white missionary who was also a doctor and actual historical figure appears in this drama. This drama is in fact based around a lot of historical characters and events, who often appear in scenes, if not whole episodes. For today, the Jejunwon, that held the first beginnings of the modern Korean hospital, lives on as the Severence Hospital, itself associated with one of the best Universities in Korea - Yonsei University.

In this drama the first and best of the Korean surgeons turns out to be the poor son of a butcher and himself a butcher, the lowest undesirable class in the later Joseon.  The drama is about how he becomes the first and the best scalpel wielding doctor in Korea, better than an aristocratic Korean who went to Japan to learn modern surgical techniques. It is a class war struggle where heart and brains win out over class and privilege and where later class and privilege win heart and brains. It's also a drama about loyalty and fierce patriotism to the Korean people.

11. General Hospital 2, 종합병원 2008

This drama was hilarious and it reminded me of my favourite TV medical dramas when I was kid in the 1960's, especially the superb UK "Is there a doctor in the House".  However it was not nearly as bombastic, darkly humorous, absurd or slapstick hilarious. In fact, it was very heart warming and serious whilst playing off the comical residents with the seriousness of actual medical cases. The leading actor Cha Tae Hyun is a gifted comic actor and he was able to blend the seriousness of being a resident in the surgery department with character of a comedian. (Cha Tae-Hyun is also superb in a film I heartily recommend called "My Sassy Girl", even if you only watch the first 8 minutes).

The lead character is a resident who has to learn care for patients, exercise a good bed side manner, and not feel defeated when errors are made.  Though not the brightest of the residents in training and did not attend the best school (Koreans are really cliquish and snobbish about school rankings), he did have the most human compassion for others - a trait recognized by only the best of his superiors. Many actors with the exception I think of Cha Tae Hyun were returning from the first version of General Hospital almost a decade earlier. In the first series Lee Jae-Ryong was like Cha Tae Hyun, a first year resident just trying to survive the militaristic orders of her overseers. In the second series which is over a decade later in real time, Jae-Ryong becomes Tae Hyun's supervisor. This is a genuinely funny, warm and compassionate TV medical drama.

This post is dedicated to Dramafever and Viki, Korean TV drama and movie hosting sites that have provided us with truly awesome entertainment for the past several years. I would also like to make another shout out to Google chromecast, for helping to liberate us from Cable TV, and for being integrated into both the Dramafever and the Viki app. Subscribing to Dramafever or Viki is much cheaper than Netflix and you will never see another ad again.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Korean Medical TV Dramas

In 1999 I was teaching English in Korea and I used to rush home after work to try and catch the next cliff hanging episode of Heo Jun. This Korean medical TV series was the dramatization of the well-known and loved 16th century Korean physician Heo Jun.

"Heo Jun (허준, 1537?/1539 – 9 October 1615) was a court physician of the Yangcheon Heo clan during the reign of King Seonjo of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea.[1] He was appointed as a court physician at the age of 29. He wrote a number of medical texts, but his most significant achievement is Dongui Bogam (lit. "Mirror of Eastern Medicine"), which is often noted as the defining text of traditional Korean medicine. The work spread to East Asian countries like China, Japan, and Vietnam where it is still regarded as one of the classics of Oriental medicine today. Although Heo Jun worked extensively with the royal family, he put a great emphasis on making treatment methods accessible and comprehensible to common people. He found natural herb remedies that were easily attainable by commoners in Korea. Furthermore, he wrote the names of the herbs using the simple hangul letters instead of using more difficult hanja (Chinese characters), which most commoners did not understand.[2][3]"

At that time there were no English subtitles and I had to ask my Korean family for a running translation. There were no English TV channels and I lived in a county in the middle of Korea where few people spoke English. I was spending more time learning Korean than teaching English just so I could communicate and get around. Even with my family's limited English ability, I was still entranced and riveted to each episode. And each episode ended with a cliff-hanger and the suspense for the next week's episode was contagious. I did literally run home so I could catch at least the opening theme music, which was in itself very catchy. It wasn't until 6 years later that I was able to see the drama again with English translation. In 2013 they did an excellent remake.

In 2005 we were able to rent VHS tapes from a local Korean grocery store in Canada where we now live of a Korean drama called Dae Jang Geum. This drama was a huge international hit and all time classic. Dae Jang Geum is sometimes translated as "Jewel in the Palace". Dae Jang Geum doesn't start out as a medical drama though there are a few scenes with illustrations of Traditional Korean medical practices. It starts out as an intrigue in the royal palace and then develops more of a theme focused on palace cooking and palace politics and customs. The theme later dives very deeply into Korean Traditional Medicine and how Dae Jang Geum learned the art and science in order to return from exile and enter palace life again, but this time as a physician. The palace cooking stuff continues and it is great. Who doesn't love Korean food?

This VHS series also did not have English translations so I had to rely on translations from family and my own interpretation of the actions. If I had spent over $300 I could have ordered English translated CDs. Eventually I was able to watch the drama for the first time on Youtube, in short 10 minute clips that had passable translation. Even with my limited Korean it was obvious many translations were wrong. It was a great revelation to finally be able to see the English subtitles though, and not too long ago, I re-watched it in hour long episodes with good translation. Tragedy, romance, comedy, politics, history, culture, Traditional Korean Medicine - it has it all.

"Dae Jang Geum (Hangul: 대장금; hanja: 大長今; RR: Dae Jang-geum; MR: Tae Chang-gǔm; literally "The Great Jang-geum"), also known as Jewel in the Palace, is a 2003 Korean television series directed by Lee Byung-hoon. It first aired from September 15, 2003 to March 23, 2004 on MBC, where it was the top program with an average viewership rating of 46.3% and a peak of 57.8% (making it the 10th highest rated Korean drama of all time). Produced for US$15 million, it was later exported to 91 countries and has earned US$103.4 million worldwide, becoming known as one of the primary proponents of the Korean Wave by heightening the popularity of Korean pop culture abroad.[1][2][3]

Starring Lee Young-ae in the title role, it tells the tale of an orphaned kitchen cook who went on to become the king's first female physician. In a time when women held little influence in society, young apprentice cook Jang-geum strives to learn the secrets of Korean cooking and medicine in order to cure the King of his various ailments. It is based on the true story of Jang-geum, the first female royal physician of the Joseon Dynasty. The main themes are her perseverance and the portrayal of traditional Korean culture, including Korean royal court cuisine and traditional medicine.[4]"

Now that I have seen more Korean dramas that just have medical or hospital themes I am also interested in ratings and what are the best ones. Of course, what is best is subjective and ratings don't necessarily reflect what one might personally enjoy. I find that a lot of ratings are on Wikipedia. Hur Jun and Dae Jang Geum are in the top ten all time rated Korean dramas, and that is not just drama that involve a lot of Traditional Korean medicine. I remember signing a petition to ask the BBC to play Dae Jang Geum drama for British TV audiences. I don't think it was ever successful, but the drama did play successfully around most of known universe.

An important note to make about Heo Jun and Dae Jang Geum is that they were both directed by Lee Byung-Hoon, who is still going strong making these epic 50 plus episode period dramas based in the Joeson Dynasty history or saeguk. I think they are superb representations of the Korean people and culture - even if only part fantasy and dramatization - there is so much to speak for them.

It seems like it was about 4 years ago that we started watching a lot of Korean TV dramas on our laptop computers utilizing the streaming services of a variety of Asian and Korean drama websites. A lot of these had dubious video and sub-title quality and came with annoying ads. Eventually services like Dramafever and Viki would become the best in quality and we subscribed monthly for a very low subscription rate. A few years ago we cut the TV cable and bought a Chromecast device so we can stream Dramafever and Viki to our big screen TV. The age of binge Korean TV drama had finally arrived.

Here is a list of Korean TV dramas that have a medical theme, plot or drama (In fact if you google "Korean TV medical drama" you will get several lists but these are just the ones that we watched). I must say that 2016 has been an awesome year for good medical dramas from the Koreans.

1. Doctors, 2016
2. Descendants of the Sun, 2016
3. Beautiful Mind, 2016
4. Yong-Pal, 2015
5. Doctor Stranger, 2014
6. Good Doctor, 2013
7. Hur Jun: The Original Story, 2013
8. Sign, 2011
9. Jejunwon, 2010
10. General Hospital 2, 2008

Why is the Korean word for scalpel "mes" 메스? Is that konglish ( Korean-English ) or is a real Korean word? According to Asianwiki it is actually a Dutch word! "Early Korean title was "Green Mes," which translates literally to "Green Scalpel". The word "Mes" is derived from the Dutch language and used in Korea/Japan to refer to a "scalpel". Title was then changed by KBS2 staff to "Good Doctor" due to some people's unfamiliarity with the word "Mes"." There is some very interesting stuff going on with these dramas and I think I will leave that to another post.

Thursday, September 15, 2016